John Robinson - The Pilgrims' Pastor


"There is no creature so perfect in wisdom and knowledge but may learn something for time present and to come by times past." ~John Robinson


John Robinson was the pastor of the Pilgrims, long before they were called Pilgrims. He became one the early leaders of the English Separatists and some regard him as one of the founders of the Congregational Church. He had a profound influence on those he pastored, in England and America. He lived at Cambridge, Norwich, Amsterdam and Leiden, each place being a center where the principles of political and religious liberty were discussed. He had the opportunity to come in contact with many different people and he wrote how in the days of his " pilgrimage," he had enjoyed "special opportunity of conversing with person of divers nations, estates and disposition in great variety."


Very little is known about John Robinson's early life, but it is believed he was born in Sturton- le-Steeple in Nottinghamshire about 1575. The Robinson name does not appear in public records in Sturton until the year 1544, where Christopher Robinson was amongst those assessed on the value of their lands. In 1585 Christopher's name no longer appears and is replaced by John Robinson, who wrote in 1608 that he was born at Sturton. It is believed that John Robinson Sr. was born about 1550 and that he married shortly after his father's death. History records that when the younger John Robinson, destined to be an integral part of our nation's history, was about seven years old, an infectious disease swept through Sturton, and many of its inhabitants died, but the Robinson household was spared. He also had a brother and two sisters who survived to adulthood.

The elder John Robinson's will included the following words:


.First I bequeathe my soule to almightie God my Creator and to Jesus Christ my Redeemer by whose precious blood sheading I have an assured hope of salvation."

"Itm I give to the poore of Sturton and Fenton sixe pounde thirteen shilling fourpence to bee payed within one yeare after my decease."


His will was signed and proved on August 19, 1614


His mother Ann wrote in her will, much the same:


".thankes be to Almightye God and perceiving and considering the instabilitye of this vaine and transitory world and the shortness of mannes lyfe there..first and principally into the hands of the Allmightye Godd my creator redeemer and sanctifier I commend my soule assuredly hopinge and trusting in and by the merits death and passion of his deare sonne Jesus Christ my onely lord and Saviour to be one of his electe and blessed Companye in the kingdom of heaven and by no other way or meanes whatsoever."


Itm I give and bequeath unto the poore people of Stourton and ffenton, fortye shilling of lawfull money of England to be given and bestowed at my funeral ath the disposition of my sonne in lawe: William Pearle."


Both of John Robinson's parents wrote of their salvation coming through Jesus Christ and also remembered the poor in their wills and listed them as their first item.


Historic references attest to the character of the elder John Robinson. He was appointed as supervisor of numerous neighbors' wills which would cause one to believe they considered him a man of integrity. Records show him in close association with John Quipp who was the vicar of the parish and in all probability, Mr. Quipp probably had some influence on the younger John Robinson.

Our Pilgrims' John Robinson was educated at Queen Elizabeth's Grammar School in Gainsborough and entered Corpus Christi College at the University of Cambridge about the age of sixteen. He was there for twelve years, first as a student and later as a teacher. He received his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1596 and his Master of Arts degree in 1599.


Robinson married Bridgett White on February15, 1604, the daughter of Alexander and Eleanor White. She was born in 1579 and her parents were prosperous yeoman farmers. Bridgett's sister Catherine was the wife of John Carver, the first governor of Plymouth. John and Bridgett had six children born in Holland: Isaac, John, Bridget, Mercy, Fear and James. It is documented that Isaac, born in 1610, sailed to America on the Lion in 1631 when he was twenty-one.


John Robinson's studies prepared him to become a minister of the Church of England. There was much unrest in the religious community at this time and Cambridge, being fairly liberal, espoused Puritanism. Robinson was greatly influenced and became a leader in the religious controversy that was sweeping the country.


The Puritans wanted to reform or "purify" the church from within. They were critical of the Church of England because its beliefs and rituals were too much like the Roman Catholic Church. They were opposed to church hierarchy and they believed each congregation should have the authority to choose and dismiss their own ministers. Queen Elizabeth I had maintained a fairly tolerant policy toward the Puritans and Separatists but when James I succeeded her in 1603 he instituted policies to enforce religious conformity and he made it illegal for separatists to hold their own services. Anyone who didn't conform would be imprisoned.


John Robinson resigned from his teaching position at Cambridge on Feb. 10, 1604. Historians believe he left his position in order to marry, for one could not hold a position at the University if you were married. He was married five days after he resigned. In the latter part of 1604, Robinson became pastor of St. Andrew's Church at Norwich. This was a bustling commercial city with contacts with Holland and Flanders. There were a number of foreign workers and also political refugees in the city and the most influential political leaders and merchants in Norwich were Puritans. Soon after he had begun his new duties at St. Andrews, the king issued a proclamation requiring that all ministers conform to a new Book of Canons before the end of the following November. The bishops, because of pressure from the king, made life intolerable for Anglican ministers with Puritan beliefs and when Robinson was faced with obeying the Bishop of Norwich or his own conscience, he refused to compromise his beliefs. He as suspended from ministering by the Episcopal authority. He gathered friends around him for prayer and conference but those who consorted with him were themselves excommunicated.


He had a family to support, therefore he settled his affairs and left Norwich and returned to Sturton-le-Steeple. Robinson had no desire to leave the Anglican Church and he spent many days praying, soul-searching and talking with clerical associates, especially those who had a real concern for further reformation in the church. He wrote that he visited places "where I hoped to fynde satisfaction for my troubled heart." Being banned from his life work caused him to question the whole position. He returned to Cambridge to visit with former colleagues and it appears that after his visit there, he became whole-heartedly involved with the little group in the neighborhood of his old home who had separated from the Church of England. Once he took that decisive step, he never looked back and shared in all the tribulation of his fellow members.

It is believed that Robinson left the Anglican Church in 1606 and returned to Gainsborough, becoming a member of John Smyth's Separatist congregation for a time. They met in secret at Gainsborough Old Hall under the protection of its Lord, Sir William Hickman and his mother, Rose. Somewhere during this time, he began attending services with the Separatists at Scrooby which distance wise was more convenient and it was here he came in contact with William Brewster and William Bradford.


As has been stated in previous postings, this group met at Scrooby Manor, the home of William Brewster. Robinson and Brewster were acquaintances and Brewster had also attended Cambridge for a time. Richard Clyfton had been chosen as minister of their group and John Robinson became an assistant pastor, (another historical account lists him as a teacher). William Brewster had been elected as an elder and William Bradford also became very influential in the groups history.

These meetings were illegal, according to the laws of England and also the law of the Church and the Ecclesiastical Commission was determined to crush the Separatist movement. Years later Bradford wrote:


"They could not long continue in any peaceable condition; but were hunted and persecuted on every side; so as their former afflictions were but as flea-bitings in comparison of these which now came upon them. For some were taken and clapt up in prison. Others had their houses beset and watched, night and day, and hardly escaped their hands; and the most were fain to fly and leave their houses and habitations, and the means of their livelihood. Yet these, and many other sharper things which afterwards befell them, were no other than they looked for; and therefore were the better prepared to bear them by the assistance of God's grace and Spirit."


It was in the fall of 1607 the group decided to leave England and emigrate to Holland. There was freedom of religion there and other English Separatists had already settled in Amsterdam. Bradford gives account of the difficulties of leaving England:


" for though they could not stay, yet they were not suffered to go; but the ports and havens were shut against them, so as they were fain to seek secret means of conveyance, and to bribe and fee the mariners, and give extraordinary rates for their passages. And yet were they oftentimes betrayed, many of them, and both they and their goods intercepted and surprised, and thereby put to great trouble and charge."


They made arrangements to leave in secret and set out on foot for the sixty mile journey to the seaport town of Boston on the North Sea in Lincolnshire. A sea captain who had agreed to smuggle them out of the country waited for them there, however he betrayed them to the authorities. They were arrested, their belongings ransacked, their money taken and they were led through town as a public display. They were imprisoned for a month and Clyfton, Brewster and Robinson were the last to be released. Another attempt was made and while they were boarding, the authorities swooped down upon them and the ship master left with those who had boarded and the remainder were left stranded in a bark, waiting for the tide to rise. Bradford recorded:


"Notwithstanding all these storms of opposition, they all gat over at length, some at one time and some at another, and some in one place and some in another, and met together again, according to their desires, with no small rejoicing."Master Robinson, Master Brewster, and other principal members. were of the last, and stayed to help the weakest over before them."


They initially settled in Amsterdam where other Separatists had been gathering as early as 1593. There were contentions and discord amongst the different groups and after a year, not wanting to become involved in the controversies, the Scrooby congregation left Amsterdam and went to Leiden, Holland.


Leiden was a city of 100,000 inhabitants in 1609 and it was one of Europe's most important centers of learning. Some of the most important scholars of the day were on the faculty of the University of Leiden and it attracted students from all over Western Europe. It was at the University of Leiden where William Brewster taught English. Robinson entered the university as a student of theology. An interesting note: upon his entry into the university he was freed from control of the magistrates, he was eligible to receive a "half tun" (126 gallons) of beer and ten gallons of wine every three months, tax free. Also, no troops would be quartered in his home, except for military emergencies. He was also exempt from standing night watch and making contributions to public works and fortifications.

Robinson along with others purchased a large house which served as a home and church. It was in this house that the group enjoyed their parting meal before they left for New England. Over several years, twenty-one apartments were built in the garden for the less affluent members, for their congregation grew to several hundred.


As has been stated in previous postings, the years in Holland were a time of great hardship for the majority of the congregants. They saw their children becoming more Dutch and they began to discuss leaving the country for a colony in America. The decision to relocate was made early in 1619.


Only a minority of the congregation, (thirty-five members) under William Brewster sailed on the Mayflower from England to America. The majority of the congregation had planned to make the voyage at a later date. Due to problems with the Speedwell even many of those who had planned to sail to America were not able to because of the problems with the ship, "Speedwell" which have been described in previous postings. Robinson had agreed in advance to go with the majority of the group, therefore he stayed in Holland. Bradford's writings and letters from John Robinson leave no doubt that the pastor intended to make the voyage to America at some point, however he died before he was able to make the journey. Before they left Leiden to sail to England to meet the Mayflower the congregation met and Bradford gives the following account:


"So, being ready to depart, they had a day of Solemn Humiliation: their Pastor taking his text from Ezra viii. 21: ' And there, at the river by Ahava, I proclaimed a Fast that we might humble ourselves before our God; and seek of hima right way for us, and for our children, and for all our substance.' Upon which [passage] he spent a good part of the day very profitably and suitable to their present condition. The rest of the time was spent in pouring out prayers to the Lord with great fervency, mixed with abundance of tears. And the time being come that they must depart, they were accompanied with most of their brethren out of the City unto a town sundry miles off, called Delftshaven, where the ship [the Speedwell] lay ready to receive them. So they left that goodly and pleasant city, which had been their resting-place near twelve years, but they knew they were Pilgrims, and looked not much on these things, but lift up their eyes to the heavens, their dearest country, and quieted their spirits."


On Edward Winslow also, the events of that time made an unforgettable impression. The parting service, the farewell feast, the scenes at the departure on the quay and on the boat were all charged with strong emotion:


" They that stayed at Leyden," he says, " feasted us that were to go at our Pastor's house, being large, where we refreshed ourselves after our tears with singing of Psalms, making joyful melody in our hearts as well as with the voice, there being many of the Congregation very expert in music; and indeed it was the sweetest melody that ever mine ears heard."


It was Winslow also who wrote years later, perhaps from notes taken at the time, his recollections of Robinson's farewell address which David Kaspareit recently read:


"the Wholesome Counsel Master Robinson
Gave That Part Of The Church Whereof
He Was Pastor At Their Departure
From Him To Begin The Great Work
Of Plantation In
New England


Amongst other wholesome instructions and exhortations he used these expressions, or to the same purpose-


"We were now ere long to part asunder; and the Lord knoweth whether ever he should live to see our faces again. But whether the Lord had appointed it or not; he charged us, before God and his blessed angels, to follow him no further than he followed Christ: and if God should reveal anything to us by any other instrument of his, to be as ready to receive it, as ever we were to receive any truth by his Ministry. For he was very confident the Lord had more truth and light yet to break forth out of his holy Word".

"He took occasion also miserably to bewail the state and condition of the Reformed Churches, who were come to a period in religion; and would go no further than the Instruments of their Reformation. As, for example, the Lutherans : they could not be drawn to go beyond what Luther saw, for whatever part of God's will He had further imparted and revealed to Calvin, they will rather die than embrace it. ' And so also,' saith he, 'you see the Calvinists. They stick where he left them, a misery much to be lamented."


"For though they were precious shining lights in their Times, yet God had not revealed his whole will to them; and were they now living,' saith he, ' they would be as ready and willing to embrace further light, as that they had received."


"Here, also, he put us in mind of our Church Covenant; at least that part of it whereby ' we promise and covenant with God and one with another to receive whatsoever light or truth shall be made known to us from his written Word;! but withal exhorted us to take heed what we received for truth; and well to examine and compare and weigh it with other Scriptures of truth before we received it. ' For,' saith he, ' it is not possible the Christian World should come so lately out of such thick antichristian darkness; and that full perfection of knowledge should break forth at once."

"Another thing he commended to us was, that we should use all means to avoid and shake off the name of 'Brownist,' being a mere nickname and brand to make religion odious and the Professors of it, to the Christian world."


"And to that end,' said he,' I should be glad if some godly Minister would go over with you before my coming. For,' said he, ' there will be no difference between the unconformable Ministers and you, when they come to the practice of the Ordinances [of religion] out of the kingdom."


"And so [our Pastor] advised us, by all means, to endeavour to close with the godly party of the Kingdom of England [the Puritans]; and rather to study union than division, viz. How near we might possibly, without sin, close with them; than, in the least measure, to affect division or separation from them. And be not loath to take another Pastor or Teacher,' saith he, ' for that Flock that hath two Shepherds is not endangered, but secured by it."


"Many other things there were of great and weighty consequence which he commended to us. But these things HIS FAREWELL ADDRESS."


Robinson and the congregation anxiously awaited news of their brethren in New England. When the Mayflower returned to England bringing with her, letters from the Pilgrims at Plymouth, it was with great sadness they learned so many had died. Robinson was anxious to join the congregants in the New World and bring with him the family members that had remained behind. When the Fortune sailed for New England, Robert Cushman returned with her, carrying a letter from John Robinson to his flock in New England and the following is that letter:


"To the church of God, at Plymouth, in New England. Much beloved brethren, neither the distance of place, nor distinction of body, can at all either dissolve or weaken that bond of true christian affection in which the Lord by his spirit hath tied us together. My continual prayers are to the Lord for you; my most earnest desire is unto you; from whom I will not longer keep (if God will) than means can be procured to bring with me the wives and children of divers of you and the rest of your brethren, whom I could not leave behind me without great, both injury to you and them, and offence to God and all men.


The death of so many our dear friends and brethren; oh! how grievous hath it been to you to bear, and to us to take knowledge of, which, if it could be mended with lamenting, could not sufficiently be bewailed; but we must go unto them and they shall not return unto us: And how many even of us, God hath taken away here, and in England, since your departure, you may elsewhere take knowledge. But the same God has tempered judgment with mercy, as otherwise, so in sparing the rest, especially those by whose godly and wise government, you may be, and (I know) are so much helped. In a battle it is not looked for but that divers should die; it is thought well for a side, if it get the victory, though with the loss of divers, if not too many or too great. God, I hope, hath given you the victory, after many difficulties, for yourselves and others; though I doubt not, but many do and will remain for you and us all to strive with.


Brethren, I hope I need not exhort you to obedience unto those whom God hath set over you, in church and commonwealth, and to the Lord in them. It is a christian's honour, to give honour according to men's places; and his liberty, to serve God in faith, and his brethren in love orderly and with a willing and free heart. God forbid, I should need to exhort you to peace, which is the bond of perfection, and by which all good is tied together, and without which it is scattered. Have peace with God first, by faith in his promises, good conscience kept in all things, and oft renewed by repentance; and so, one with another, for his sake, who is, though three, one; and for Christ's sake who is one, and as you are called by one spirit to one hope. And the God of peace and grace and all goodness be with you, in all the fruits thereof, plenteously upon your heads, now and forever. All your brethren here, remember you with great love, a general token whereof they have sent you.

Yours ever in the Lord, Leyden, {Holland)
June 30, Anno 1621. JOHN ROBINSON."


Historians believe Robinson's influence on the colony contributed to the ideas of democracy and the following is an excerpt from a letter in which he addressed civil government:

."5 Lastly, whereas you are to become a Body Politie, using amongst yourselves Civil Government, and are not furnished with any person of special eminency above the rest to be chosen by you into Office of Government, let your wisdom and godliness appear, not only in choosing such persons as do entirely love, and will diligently promote, the common good; but also in yielding unto them all due honour and obedience in their lawful administrations. Not beholding in the the ordinariness of their person, but God's ordinance for your good, nor being like unto the foolish multitude, who more honour the gay coat than either the virtuous mind of the man, or glorious ordinance of the Lord."


Robinson's plans to join the Pilgrims in New England were frustrated for mainly two reasons:

One was the lack of finances. They didn't have the capital to finance a trip on their own, and they had involved London merchants for the initial venture who were not a part of the fellowship, and that was causing them difficulty. It had more or less made them subject to a group of strangers who were unsympathetic to their cause.


The second was a general hostility toward Robinson's convictions in regard to Church government and order. The public's perception of Robinson's group was they were "Brownists" and "respectable" London merchants had no intention of furthering "Brownism." Even as others in the group made their way over, Robinson continued to be barred from joining them.

Robinson apparently remained busy during those years after the departure of that first voyage of his congregants. There were exchanges of letters with the Pilgrims, great efforts to arrange for the families of the Pilgrims to join those already in New England and he continued to write and promote the ideas of the Separatist movement while performing his ministerial duties. Robinson also wrote sixty-two essays during his life, one of them being "A Justification of Separation from the Church of England" Several pamphlets were written defending Separatist doctrine and their withdrawal from the Church of England.


John Robinson died in 1625, five years after the Mayflower sailed for the New World with the first group of "Pilgrims." In a letter sent to William Bradford describing the circumstances of his death, Roger White wrote:


"These therefore, are to give you to understand that it hath pleased the Lord to take out of this vale of tears, your and our loving and faithful pastor, and my dear and reverend brother Mr. John Robinson, who was sick some eight days, beginning first to to be sick on a Saturday morning: yet the the next day being the Lord's day, he taught us twice, and the week after, grew every day weaker than other, yet felt no pain, but weakness all the time of his sickness..He fell sick the twenty-second of February, and departed this life on the first of March..But he having faithfully finished his course and performed his work, which the Lord had appointed him here to perform, he now rests with the Lord in eternal happiness."


The Plymouth group didn't hear of the death of their Pastor until a year after his death. Captain Miles Standish had made a trip to England bringing letters with him from the colony. The Leiden group, in turn, sent letters back with him, sharing with the colony their sorrow at his death and also their longing to join their brethren in America.


William Bradford wrote of John Robinson


"Mr. John Robinson," he says, " was pastor of that famous Church of Leyden, in Holland; a man not easily to be paralleled for all things, whose singular virtues we shall not take upon us here to describe. Neither need we, for they so well are known both by friends and enemies. As he was a man learned and of solid judgment and of a quick and sharp wit, so was he also of a tender conscience and very sincere in all his ways, a hater of hypocrisy and dissimulation, and would be very plain with his best friends. He was very courteous, affable and sociable in his conversation, and towards his own people especially.


"He was an acute and expert disputant, very quick and ready, and had much bickering with the Arminians, who stood more in fear of him than any of the University.


"He was never satisfied in himself until he had searched any cause or argument he had to deal in thoroughly and to the bottom; and we have heard him sometimes say to his familiars that many times, both in writing and disputation, he knew he had sufficiently answered others, but many times not himself; and was ever desirous of any light, and the more able, learned, and holy the persons were, the more he desired to confer and reason with them.


"He was very profitable in his ministry and comfortable to his people. He was much beloved of them, and as loving was he unto them, and entirely sought their good for soul and body.

In a word, he was much esteemed and reverenced of all that knew him and his abilities-both of friends and strangers. But we resolved to be brief in this matter, leaving you to better and more large information herein from others."


It is clear to me that those believers in Europe and those that left to come to America believed God and believed His word, just at is written. ~Doyle

Sources: Wikipedia; The Pastor of the Pilgrims, A Biography of John Robinson by Walter H. Burgess (1920); Of Plymouth by William Bradford

Written by Kathryn Currier

posted March 22, 2010



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